January 29 2002 POINT OF ORDER

POINT OF ORDER January 29, 2002

The Presiding Officer:

 Order. Before I call Members on this point of order, I make it clear that calling Members to speak in this Chamber is entirely a matter for me, and for the Deputy Presiding Officer when he is presiding. Clearly, I have regard to decisions made by the Assembly, to Assembly guidance and to our Standing Orders because the interpretation of Standing Orders is also a part of my responsibility. I receive advice from many quarters about whom I should call to speak, not least from Members who want to be called. I also receive advice from party groups about their proposed selection of speakers. That has happened during almost every debate here. It often falls to the Deputy Presiding Officer or myself to vary that selection or to indicate that we cannot call some Members. That happened to the Plaid Cymru group last week when it was not in the interest of the balance of an hour’s debate for five members of that group to be called. I cite that example because it is the most recent. While I am Presiding Officer, I will continue to ensure that all Members, whatever their status, have the same opportunity to address the Assembly.The question of calling Deputy Ministers, whether or not they have ministerial responsibility for an issue, arose from the matter of ensuring party balance in debates. It occurred to the Deputy Presiding Officer and myself—and we received representations on this matter from several Members—that the Government was, in effect, having additional time during debates. I have the document on the collective responsibility of Deputy Ministers before me. It states clearly that, when Deputy Ministers speak on matters within the portfolio of the Minister or Ministers whom he or she supports, they should not comment publicly on matters of policy and decision-making, other than to reinforce or expand the Minister’s or Cabinet’s view. Therefore, it is incontrovertible and beyond reasonable doubt, that, if a Deputy Minister speaks on a topic that is related to his or her portfolio, that can only be, according to the Cabinet’s guidance, to reinforce the Government’s view. 

Delyth Evans:

 Further to that point of order, my understanding of the guidelines on the responsibilities of Deputy Ministers is that we only act as Deputy Ministers when the Minister asks us to do so. It is clear to me, therefore, that when we are discussing an issue where the Minister is representing the Government, I am not carrying out my function as a Deputy Minister and I am in the same position as any other backbench Member. I would, therefore, be contributing to that debate as a backbencher.
I do not wish to fall out with Peter Black over who would suffer most under the system to which you referred, but as a Deputy Minister for rural affairs, the environment, the Welsh language, the arts and sport, it would seriously limit my ability to contribute to discussions on issues in which I have a great interest. Therefore, I would very much regret such a decision.

The Presiding Officer:

 I am afraid that it has already been decided, and you have received correspondence on this. Naturally, if there are constituency or local issues that are of great import to you, or any other Member, as a constituency Member, you would be entitled to draw attention to that in requesting to speak. However, as a rule, we will follow the guidelines issued to you. That is in accordance with the document to which I referred earlier: you cannot make a public statement unless it confirms or elaborates on the opinion of the Minister or the Cabinet. Therefore, it is clear to me that, in accepting the responsibilities of a Deputy Minister, you also accept a collective responsibility as part of the Government. That is part of the price that must be paid for the development of parliamentary Government in the Assembly. I am not criticising that, but that was the difficulty that arose as soon as a coalition Government was formed.
The Deputy Presiding Officer and I try to give equal prominence to political groups. However, in answer to Peter Black’s other point, if a political group decides to join or support the Government’s group, there is a price to pay for that. Allowing the Government to speak twice, particularly in a debate that only lasts an hour, would be unacceptable. I do not want to spend too much time on this because we have two minority party debates, to which this is relevant, afterwards.3:20 p.m.

Peter Law:

 I was amazed to hear Peter Black’s challenge of your ruling. I believe it is correct, because I have 30 years’ experience of how these matters are dealt with in local government. It has come about, in my opinion, because of the loose status of Deputy Ministers. Issues arise daily. The solution is simple—athough there will be sadness about it on the Liberal Democrat benches, because they have a difficulty—the answer lies with Peter Black. He only needs to resign and he will be free to say what he thinks..Rhodri Glyn Thomas: On this point, I want to reiterate what Peter Law said: we have great respect for your ruling on this matter. It throws a much clearer light on the relationship between the Deputy Minister and the Government. The majority of the Members would greatly appreciate it if you could restrict Peter Black’s contributions still further..The Presiding Officer: I will not comment on that last point.

David Davies:

 If the position of Deputy Minister is a serious one, which we are meant to take seriously, a Deputy Minister should be called within Government time, and your ruling is correct. If, however, his position is merely a meaningless bauble, a worthless title handed out to members of the smallest and least popular party in Wales in an attempt to make them appear more important than they are, perhaps you ought to reconsider.
Alison Halford: I applaud any step that you take to ensure that backbenchers have at least some say. Under the new rule of the coalition, one of the Deputy Ministers had a great deal to say. However, clearly your advisors will have advised you not only about the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but also about the Human Rights Act 1998, which gives precedence to free speech. Presumably this will not infringe upon one’s capacity to speak freely on any subject, whether one is a Deputy Minister or not. Apart from that, Presiding Officer, I commend your ruling.

 


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